It’s always challenging to sift through the fog of war to ascertain what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine, especially so when it’s breaking news like the Ukrainian counteroffensive, and extra so when it’s in a theater—Kherson in southern Ukraine—in which Ukraine has enforced a tight lid on information.
As such, what is discussed below may be distorted or even flat out wrong. Details will sort out in the coming days as the Open Source Community aggregates its various sources of information to paint the more accurate picture. But for now, I’ll discuss what seems to be happening, to the best of available information.
First of all, there's a simple question: Is there actually a major offensive taking place in Kherson? Illia Ponomarenko, a defense writer at the Kyiv Independent, cast some potential doubt on the early reports.
“Tactical” means it’s just localized actions without broader strategic considerations. We’ve seen his happen multiple times, going all the way back to March—we see activity, we think “counteroffensive!” only to see minimal movement on the map. Still, there is reason to believe this is different, if for no other reason than Ukraine has said it is. Always loathe to announce offensive operations, it loudly trumpeted this one.
"Today we started offensive actions in various directions, including in the Kherson region," Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne on August 29 cited southern command spokeswoman Natalya Humenyuk as saying. She confirmed the news minutes later at a briefing.
Anything less than a serious Kherson offensive would make Ukraine look weak. Given the rest of the evidence, we can likely take these proclamations at face value.
While Ukraine hates to announce liberations while operations are ongoing, information is leaking out of a wide front, with Ukraine putting pressure on the entire line.
Don’t worry about the exact location of the settlement names listed on the tweets above, it’s all rumor and supposition at this point, and none of those towns are major enough to be considered a major breakthrough. All that’s important is that Ukraine is moving forward in several places, even if Russian sources claimed they already retook their lost ground. (I can very much believe that those settlements are being actively contested by both sides.)
I’ve seen rumors of progress along other parts of this front, including the northeast tip of Russian-controlled territory, on the Dnipro river banks (top right on this map). Still, there’s no evidence of anything beyond what is being discussed on Telegram and perhaps leaking from more official sources. Remember, this is a very flat part of Ukraine, very exposed to artillery and aviation assaults. That’s why Ukraine has been systematically degrading Russia’s supply depots, as well as supply routes. Once Russia runs out of artillery shells, the task becomes a far different one than even what they’re dealing with at this very moment.
As is, pro-Russian Telegram sources claimed Ukrainian forces had advanced 10 kilometers at various points along the front, which must've made them very jealous given their glacial pace at the Donbas front. (Again, no real confirmation.)
Ukrainian military expert Oleg Zhdanov, who runs a daily YouTube update, claims that Ukraine has broken through a “first line of defense” toward Kherson, but that at least two more lines remain.
Ukrainian forces have broken through the first line of defence, the 109th regiment of the 1st Army Corps from the 8th field army left their positions together with Russian VDV who supported them. Ukrainian forces took these positions. Confirmation of this is expected. This was a result of Ukrainian artillery and aviation that led to Russian forces lose combat ability, or it was result of an assault.
Oleg suggest to wait for official information.
When it comes to further advancement, it’s important to remember Russians have built 3 lines of defence in direction towards Kherson, although in previous months two first were already broken through. Quick advance is not possible, we need to stay patient.
The 109th regiment—made up of Donbas conscripts—was routed after Russian “elite” VDV airborne troops abandoned their positions. This is very “fog of war” type of info and nothing I’d put money on. But the VDV was decimated in the Battle of Kyiv, and they’ve been sitting here since March recuperating. Wouldn’t be surprising that they’d lack the will to continue fighting, and the Donbas cannon fodder sure isn’t motivated to die this far from their homes.
I think something is lost in the translation in that last paragraph, but the gist is that even if Ukraine has busted through the first lines of defense, there are far more obstacles ahead for them. This Ukrainian soldier talks about the difficulties in their first wave assault
He talks about having to charge across an open field, covered in mines, as Russian drones dropped grenades from above (including one that concussed him), and artillery lands around them. He also says their comms were lacking making coordination difficult. If you can’t see the captions, fully expand the video.
Presidential advisor Aleksey Arestovych has his own take on the counteroffensive:
The UAF started small counteroffensive in the Southern direction, broke through the first line of Russian defences in several locations and are currently trying to progress deeper into Russian-occupied territory.
Simultaneously, several bridges were hit by artillery and HIMARS (Antonovskij bridge, the Antonovskij railway bridge, Dar’jvskij and Nova Kahovka bridges). Later in the evening the pontoon ferries together with the Russian military equipment. Another two pontoon bridges were destroyed or damaged. All the Dnipro Crossings are under Ukrainian fire control [...]
Arestovych also mentioned the success of Ukrainian aviation that increased its activity after the destruction of Russian Air-defence radars.
Interesting that he calls it a “small counteroffensive.” Expectations setting? Regardless, this lays out the Ukrainian strategy we’ve been talking about for months—lure in Russians, cut them off, attack them, and then … really, now we hope they decide that dying over this piece of land far from their homes is stupid.
The assault did mark a changing point in the war:
The shift from strategic targets (supply depots, command and control, bridges, supply lines, etc) to tactical ones (troops in the trenches) presumably means that they had run out of long-range targets, since M777s and other tube artillery could hit those emplacements just as effectively, and cheaper. Perhaps the U.S. still has old unguided MLRS rockets to offer up, since the guided ones are so expensive and in short supply.
Still, guided artillery can be very effective against trenches, as this video, geolocated to Kherson’s airport, shows (sensitive images, and I’d suggest volume off):
After dark fell, Ukraine went back to hitting bridges linking Russian forces in Kherson oblast with their supply lines in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
In addition to Nova Kakhovka, there were reports and some pictures of Ukraine hitting the barges that have partly replaced access lost after Ukraine shut down the Antonovsky bridge.
I took a peek at NASA FIRMS satellite data, which is designed to track forest fires, but does a great job of tracking the Ukrainian front lines:
That certainly tracks what is being reported, with fire concentration at all three Ukrainian advances—west of Kherson approaching Tomyna Balka, north of Kherson around Davydiv Brid, and northeast of Kherson on the approach to Kryvyi Rih.
Russia, which claims it has shot down more Ukrainian aircraft than Ukraine ever had in its Air Force, has some lofty casualty claims for the day: 560 Ukrainian soldiers, 26 tanks, 23 armored fighting vehicles, nine troop carriers, and two aircraft. Okay, sure.
Information might be tough to get for a while, as Ukraine’s General Staff asked that “everyone go dark on posting any information, videos, photos, with regards to the Battle for Kherson. Operation Security is critical.” I suspect we’ll get more information from pro-Russia telegram than from the Ukrainian side in the days and weeks ahead.
This is what it’s like being near the receiving end of a HIMARS/MLRS strike:
Russia is stuck, losing ground in multiple fronts, Sweden and Finland are joining NATO, Europe is looking elsewhere for its energy needs, the UN keeps rebuking them, they never achieved air superiority, and its navy is hiding from a country with no navy.
So yeah, sure, Russia is winning...
We need your help to write 10,000,000 letters to infrequent but Democratic-leaning prospective voters in key congressional districts and Senate swing states this election, urging them to exercise their right to vote. Sign up with Vote Forward and join the most popular and effective Get Out the Vote (GOTV) activity in Daily Kos history.